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Thursday Throwback: Classic Film Review: Imitation of Life

by Special Correspondent Nadra Kareem

This review was originally posted on January 12, 2009

If there’s a classic film on race that gives “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” a run for its money, it’s 1959’s “Imitation of Life.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the film, which stars Lana Turner and Juanita Moore. There’s no denying that this film is chock full of stereotypes and relegates its black characters to the sidelines—even on the DVD cover. So, why today is this Douglas Sirk film still regarded as ab fab? A few reasons come to mind—both shallow and serious.

For starters, Lana Turner’s wardrobe is to die for. Mahalia Jackson sings her ass off, and the acting in this melodrama reaped Academy Award nominations. To boot, the movie’s emphasis on mother-daughter relationships gives it mass appeal. Mix in a couple of failed romances and an untimely death, and you have all the ingredients needed for a tearjerker.

“Imitation of Life” inspired a 2001 R.E.M. song of the same name and the 2002 film “Far from Heaven.” Also, in ’02, a scene from the film was featured in Eminem’s star-making vehicle, “8 Mile.” Its enduring popularity made it no surprise when the film debuted on DVD in 2003.

The Lana Turner version of “Imitation of Life” is a remake of the 1934 film of the same name starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers, based on the book Imitation of Life by Fannie Hurst. (Both films were released together in a DVD set in 2008.) In the first film, white actress Colbert and black actress Beavers hawk a pancake recipe together. In the 1959 version, the focus here, Lana Turner (Lora Meredith) runs into Juanita Moore (Annie Johnson) on Coney Island after their daughters become playmates.

At first, Lora has no idea that Annie is the mother of little Sarah Jane. “How long have you taken care of her?” she asks Annie. Annie is brown-skinned, and Sarah Jane is “light, bright, damn near white,” as the saying goes.

Lora looks like she’s going to crap her pants when she learns that Annie isn’t SJ’s mammy, prompting Annie to tell her that Sarah Jane’s dad is “practically white.” This explanation is good enough for Lora, who likely would’ve needed smelling salts had SJ’s dad been actually white instead of practically so. Still, there’s no way for us to know his race for sure because he took off before Sarah Jane was born, leaving Annie to fend for herself and young daughter alone.

Now Annie has fallen on hard times. She’s jobless and apparently homeless and begs Lora to take her and Sarah Jane in. Why she wants to move in with Lora doesn’t make much sense. Lora’s a widow who’s not only broke but behind on her bills. It takes a stretch of the imagination to believe that Annie would insist on moving in with her instead of a more prosperous white woman or that Lora would take Annie in. Still, the two women move in together. To Sarah Jane’s chagrin, Annie assumes the role of maid and mammy, her payment being room and board.

“I don’t want to live in the back. Why do we always have to live in the back?” Sarah Jane objects when they move in with Lora and her little daughter, Susie.

Sarah Jane is none too happy about her station in life, a station she blames on her mother’s dark skin. Accordingly, she wishes Lora were her mother. She takes Susie’s white doll away from her because she doesn’t want to play with a black doll. Later, she pricks Susie to find out if their blood is the same color because she’s heard that black blood is different from white blood. Sarah Jane also wants to know what color Jesus was. When no one answers, she fills the silence by declaring, “He was like me…white.”

The discord Sarah Jane brings to her new household follows her to school also. When Annie shows up during the middle of class one day, she finds out that Sarah Jane has been passing for white. (This is the scene featured in “8 Mile.”) Her cover blown, Sarah Jane has a temper tantrum, stomping defiantly in the snow with Annie chasing her.

A major stereotype in “Imitation of Life” is that of Negro as saint. Annie is ever patient with Sarah Jane. She never raises her voice or backhands her, as you can bet some parents would do if their daughter pulled the stunts that Sarah Jane does. Because Annie is so Christ-like in the face of SJ’s ingratitude, it’s difficult to sympathize with Sarah Jane, who comes across like an evil brat. Yet, this child has clearly been through a lot—a father who abandoned her, a mother society tells her is a mismatch and a Gypsy-like existence due to the limited resources her mother has to draw on to survive. As she matures, one would hope that Sarah Jane would develop a more three-dimensional perspective, transferring the anger she has with her mother to the racially stratified society they live in. This doesn’t happen, though.

Fast forward a decade, and Sarah Jane is still furious with her mother for being black. It doesn’t matter that Lora Meredith is now a movie star and that she, Sarah Jane, Susie and Annie live in a house that could be on MTV’s “Cribs.” Sarah Jane remains surly. She doesn’t want to date a colored boy, objects to helping Annie serve Lora’s guests and to enrolling in a colored teacher’s college.

On one count I agree with Sarah Jane and that’s to do with serving Lora’s guests. We find out that, while Lora has spent her money carelessly, Annie has saved every bit of hers, so why is Annie content to remain Lora’s maid? Rather than invest in creating a life of her own, Annie puts aside cash for Sarah Jane’s schooling and for the lavish funeral she’s probably planned for before her daughter was born. It’s as if the only thing this black woman has to look forward to is death, a misconception, I believe, even in 1959. Since Sarah Jane refuses to go to teaching school, Annie won’t need to drop any coin on her education, though. Instead, she spends her money tracking Sarah Jane down when she runs away.

Sarah Jane decides to bounce when her mother’s presence makes it impossible to pass for white. First, Sarah Jane’s white boyfriend (Troy Donahue) dumps her and beats her up after finding out who her mother is. Then, Annie shows up to the dive bar Sarah Jane has been performing at in secret and blows her cover there. This leads SJ to pack her bags and head to California.

Am I the only one who cringes at this plotline? It’s common knowledge that blacks pass for white to obtain the opportunities denied to them in a racist society. Sarah Jane herself says, “I want to have a chance in life. I don’t want to have to come through back doors or feel lower than other people.” Yet, she’s passing for white to work in clubs? She could have remained black and landed such a gig, which entailed not only dancing but also taking off with clients after performances. Rather than give Sarah Jane any worthy motive for passing, the filmmakers chose to exploit the stereotype of the mixed-race woman as whore. Perhaps as a white woman, SJ could be an Ashley Dupré level whore rather than a Divine Brown level whore, but a whore she’d remain. Adding to my concern is that the storyline emphasizes how Lora Meredith refused to lie on the casting couch to be a movie star. In short, the white woman has integrity. The tragic mulatto, not so much.

While SJ is “dancing,” Lora Meredith has some personal drama of her own. She’s recently reunited with her former flame Steve (John Gavin) after dropping him years ago to pursue her acting career. This time around, however, their relationship faces another challenge when Lora’s daughter convinces herself that she has fallen in love with Steve. What a silly plot twist. Susie knows that her mother and Steve were once more than friends, so it’s pretty absurd that she deludes herself into thinking that now Steve has the hots for her and not for her mother.

Susie (Sandra Dee) is the character who most makes me want to hit “fast-forward.” Equal parts bratty and giddy—when she’s not pouting, she’s squealing—Susie is completely self-centered. She shows limited empathy for Sarah Jane and Annie, which is saying a lot given that she’s grown up with them. Then again, one can’t blame Susie too much for being self-absorbed. The woman who gave birth to her is such a diva she makes Mariah Carey look humble.

Don’t get me wrong. Watching Lana Turner being fabulous is junk food for the eyes. After Lora makes it big, we see her in her dressing room wearing a curve-hugging metallic gown and a matching jacket trimmed with fur. The next scene finds Lora in her luxurious new digs wearing a sheer floral piece that ties at the waist over a rose bodysuit. Even at home, she’s fierce. Other ensembles include a flared shimmering tube dress with a luminous pink shawl and a bustier cut Grecian gown halved by a turquoise sash. Turner is knee deep in jewels throughout the film. Pink gems, turquoise gems, platinum.

Beyond the wardrobe, however, Lora can be hard to swallow sometimes. How full of herself she is comes to light when she tells Annie that she didn’t know that Annie had any friends. Annie’s response: “Miss Lora, you never asked.” And when Annie grieves because Sarah Jane has disowned her, Lora is beyond callous, arguing that Susie’s crush on Steve is the bigger issue at hand. “This is a very real problem,” Lora says of Susie’s feelings for Steve, which are about as deep as an episode of “The Hills.”

So, let’s get this straight. Annie’s 18-year-old daughter hates her, hates her black blood, is a chronic runaway and is exotic dancing to make ends meet, and Annie’s problems aren’t “very real.” Seriously?

Although I’ve told you what happens in the movie thus far, I won’t give away the ending. Suffice it to say that, in the conclusion, we’re led to think that the characters have gotten the reality check they need to stop being hateful bitches. The ending features Mahalia Jackson singing with such emotion that you’ll get chills. If you’re the weepy sort, have a box of Kleenex on hand. Also, if there’s anyone you need to make peace with, prepare to make amends.

The 1959 version of “Imitation of Life” has been criticized for being an over-the-top departure from the novel. Moreover, the casting of Susan Kohner as the older Sarah Jane has been criticized because she’s not black, as was actress Fredi Washington, who played the role (but with a different name) in the 1934 version.

I thought that the Mexican-Jewish Kohner did a convincing job as Sarah Jane. Acting and looks wise, she’s believable as a light-skinned black, which wasn’t at all the case for Anthony Hopkins in 2003’s “The Human Stain.” Perhaps she drew upon her experiences with real-life mother (dancer Lupita Tovar) in playing Moore’s daughter in “Imitation of Life.” Whatever her method, the onscreen chemistry between the two earned both Kohner and Moore Oscar nods. Kohner won a Golden Globe as well. Compare this to Turner and Sandra Dee, who weren’t acknowledged for their acting in the film.

In addition to criticism about the casting, “Imitation of Life” has rightfully been targeted for fueling the stereotype of the tragic mulatto. The film makes it clear that Sarah Jane doesn’t have a chance because she’s racially mixed. “How do you explain to your child she was born to be hurt?” Annie asks Lora. However, what’s been overlooked at times is that Annie is a tragic character as well, and not just because her daughter rejects her. A strong black woman before the phrase was in vogue, Annie is everyone’s “Rock of Gibraltar,” as Steve describes her. Although she’s tired and weary, Annie takes time to give Lora a foot rub, a gesture Lora would never deign to make for her. In the beginning of the film, both Lora and Annie are broke, but Annie assumes the role of maid, doing Lora’s laundry because she likes “taking care of pretty things.”

Juanita Moore, interviewed by The Black World Today in October 2005, made it clear that saintly, self-sacrificing Annie in no way represented her. “Annie was nothing like me…,” Moore told the publication. “I have been in a lot of pictures. However, most of them consisted of my opening doors for white people.”

And such was the fate of a black actress in the 1950s.

If you’ve yet to see “Imitation of Life,” become initiated by catching airings of it in January and February on Turner Classic Movies.

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Racialicious Review: Dear White People

By Kendra James

The partial cast of “Dear White People,” including Tyler James White

“Dear White People. The single ladies dance is dead. Please turn off your web cams and go on about your lives.”

Dear White People centers around the lives of four Black students at the a fictional Ivy League school. Sam (Tessa Thompson, Copper) runs the controversial campus radio show ‘Dear White People’ which has been accused by the administration of stirring racial tensions around the school. Troy (Brandon P Bell) is under pressure to succeed in all aspects of university life from his father, the Dean of Students (Dennis Haysbert, 24). Things begin to unravel when Sam, his ex-girlfriend, beats him in the campaign for president of the one traditionally Black dorm on campus. Their stories weave in with Lionel (Tyler James White, Everybody Hates Chris), a gay sci-fi geek who can’t find a dorm where he fits in, and Coco (Teyonah Parris, Mad Men), a Black girl from the south side of Chicago who doesn’t want to be seen as the stereotypical ghetto girl.

Tensions on campus have already been running high with the decision to abolish traditional housing preferences (a policy that only seems to apply to Black students). Things finally come to a head in the form of a riot when the campus humour magazine throws a Blackface party for Halloween, with Coco agreeing to MC.

I loved this movie. I loved everything about it from the characters painted first in broad, archetypical strokes, to the obvious film and directorial references peppered throughout, to the delivery of the promised laughter, to the fact that it appeared to be shot by someone who knew more than how to turn the camera on and off- something that one can’t take for granted in Black, independent, or mainstream film.

Dear White People was recently picked up by Lionsgate for distribution this fall. Despite it’s internet viral success (the initial Indiegogo campaign raised approximately $25,000 in three days) and Sundance credentials, Simien acknowledged that it is likely to be seen as a Black Film by the general public. Simien’s film is definitely an homage to the late 80s and early 90s satirical movies by directors like Spike Lee and Robert Townsend, but this isn’t a movie that is –or should be- aimed at Black audiences alone. For me that would be a strange place to put a movie filmed in the style of Spike Lee and Wes Anderson’s love child with hints of a 60s New Wave influence. The film’s referential style is likely in part due to this being Simien’s first feature length film. As a director he hasn’t had the time to develop his own style, and it shows as he meshes together several imitations of others’ styles and various cinematic influences. But there was truth to what he said later, explaining that the references were also pointed and intentional because they’re not something expected (or often seen) from a Black director and cast.

A familiar aesthetic probably doesn’t hurt when it comes to gathering a wider audience either. I found the characters relatable despite their broadness. A sci-fi nerd with questionable hair game? Check. A media studies major who writes papers seen as over the top about Gremlins as a manifestation of white suburbia’s fear of Black people and struggles with an interracial relationship? Double check. Granted, it’s fair to say that I was relating to them -and the story as a whole- directly via my experiences as a Black student who spent seven years being educated in majority White institutions. There’s legitimately nothing wrong with that and empathy is a skill worth developing (dear white people, contrary to popular belief your stories aren’t the only ones that need telling), but in the eyes of a studio executive looking to make money one can see how pairing aesthetically to one of the most popular indie directors would be a plus.

The movie is bound to find its critics in wide release; the cast and crew spoke briefly about some of the criticism they took from white people at Sundance (an astounding majority of which hadn’t even seen the movie yet). Pictures of several Blackface Parties and other racist themes prevalent on college campuses roll with the credits. The subject matter satirised isn’t far-fetched at all; in fact it’s fairly common place. The film doesn’t act as a morality play either. Yes, there’s the assumption made that the viewer assumes that these parties are wrong, but that doesn’t mean you have to agree with the the characters’ methods, behaviour, or the outcomes. The title is probably the most abrasive thing about the movie, and even that’s stretching things. As Simien told the audience before the film began, this is a film for all groups and white people? It’s even okay to laugh. Overall, this isn’t overtly a movie about racism or white people being cartoonishly horrible to non white people. It’s more a reflection of our current culture in America, both visually and content wise. Those finding themselves offended probably need to ask themselves why that is.

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE is directed by Justin Simien and will open in theatres in late 2014. Thanks to the Museum of Modern Art’s New Directors, New Films for hosting us at the film’s screening. 

 

The Racialicious Review Of 12 Years A Slave

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years A Slave

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years A Slave

By Kendra James

Warning: This review contains spoilers, and discussion of abuse, violence, and rape.

Normally, knowing that a story has a “happy ending” helps to ease the burden of getting through something horrific. 12 Years a Slave is not that movie. It can’t be that movie with the way Steve McQueen dispenses of the conventional methods to show the passing of time. This could be 12 months, 12 weeks, or 12 years and we wouldn’t have known; I even lost track of how long I’d been in the theatre. There’s no clear changing of the seasons; no transition from spring to summer or fall, just once the point made that a crop of cotton has been lost.

Time is marked by the passing of violence rather than the passing of seasons, and it blurs and stretches and bunches together in places as it must have for Solomon Northup  (a triumphant Chiwetel Ejiofor) himself. By not providing the viewer with any demarcation of time McQueen effectively puts us in his lead character’s position. How long Solomon’s been enslaved doesn’t matter and there’s no concrete end. Just one dehumanising experience to live through after another.

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Race + Television: Hell On Wheels and Copper Give Different Weight to POC Characters

 

The title cards for both Copper and Hell On Wheels.

The title cards for both Copper and Hell On Wheels.

[This post contains spoilers for Seasons 1-2 of Hell On Wheels and Copper]

I didn’t watch either Hell on Wheels or Copper with the intention of comparing one to the other, but when the quality of the shows took such drastic turns, I couldn’t help myself. Hell on Wheels  was meant to sate my need for violent Westerns, while I started watching Copper on the recommendations of friends and Racialicious readers. As an AMC show going into it’s third season my expectations for Hell on Wheels were high. It turns out I may have put a little too much faith in AMC –and to be fair, this was before the abysmal premiere of Low Winter’s Sun.

So before we move into Fall premieres (your suggestions for that, by the way, have been received and greatly appreciated) a little side by side comparison of Copper and Hell On Wheels: two Civil War era period dramas with different acknowledgements of race.

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I Saw The Lone Ranger So You Don’t Have To

By Guest Contributor Adrienne K.; originally published at Native Appropriations

 

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It’s been 12 hours since I saw The Lone Ranger, and I still have the darn William Tell Overture stuck in my head. I wonder how long that lasts. It’s like waking up with a Tonto hangover, I guess. I have so many thoughts on this film, and only maybe one of them is good. But I think we need to start off with this: The Lone Ranger is just a bad movie. It’s 2.5 hours of a film with an identity crisis, not knowing if it’s supposed to be funny, campy, dramatic, “authentic,” or what. At points, it was very hard to separate the stereotypical and hurtful from the bad script, bad editing, and bad character development of the movie itself.

So, if it even needs to be said: SPOILER ALERT–I’m about to give away everything. But you’re not going to see the movie anyway, so it shouldn’t really matter. But you know how the internet is. Here’s my review, in only six parts. I restrained myself.

Some quick overall thoughts: Like I mentioned above, this movie didn’t know what it was, and that was a problem. It was also so. incredibly. long. By the time we got to the final big train chase scene at the end, where the pair save the day (accompanied by the aforementioned William Tell) I wrote in my notes: “FINALLY! I AM SO BORED!” and then that scene drug on for another 15 minutes and I just wanted it to end. I forgot what we were even fighting for. Which I think was the problem all along.

This is also the most violent movie I’ve seen in awhile, and I’m a fan of Game of Thrones. Don’t take your kids, despite the Disney label and PG-13 rating. There is so much shooting and stabbing, and they show the aftermath.  Early on in the film the bad guy even cuts out and eats the Lone Ranger’s brother’s heart (yes, eats it). They have no qualms about shooting someone for the sake of shooting someone, and there are blood and guts and barn beams smashing people’s heads. It’s not something I would want to expose my kids to, at all.

And for those of you new to the blog or needing a refresher, here’s all my Tonto coverage over the last year or so, which covers the casting, the costume, and a whole bunch of other things: my initial reactionswhy you should care about Tonto when there are “bigger issues” out theretearing apart Depp’s reasoning over his costume choicesthe controversy I dealt with for writing about Tonto, andArmie Hammer’s comments about Indians loving the movie.

Part 1: The Opening Scene–Indians are so backward and funny, y’all!

The movie opens with a Buffalo Bill-style Wild West Show, set up like a museum of Natural History, and a little kid wanders in dressed like the Lone Ranger, eatin’ some peanuts, lookin’ at the buffalo, then, oh hey! “The Noble Savage in his natural habitat.” Guess who that is??

Spoiler! It’s Johnny Depp. In some scary-ass old person makeup. Like seriously crypt keeper style. Then OMG he moves! and reaches out! and says in a croaky old person voice, the first words of the whole film: “Kemooosabeeeh.” Then there’s this whole bit where Tonto asks the little boy to “traaaade” (sounding like zombies and “braaains”) and points to his peanuts, which Tonto exchanges for a dead mouse. Then he proceeds to eat the peanuts with the shells on, crunching through them to the boy’s disgust and wonderment, while feeding the crumbs to the bird on his head.

I won’t go this in-depth with the rest of the film, but I wanted to set the stage. The very first scene we are presented with an image of a Native person, in a museum–which presumably we’re supposed to critique, but there’s no questioning of Tonto’s position there. To me it reinforces the idea that all the Indians are dead, relics of the past, which is actually a theme throughout. This Indian is so silly and backward he trades a dead mouse for a bag of peanuts, doesn’t even know how to eat peanuts, and is feeding a bird, but it’s dead. Even the child knows that’s wrong. So this is the “new” Tonto? Definitely an improvement, amiright? (that was sarcasm. In case you missed it.)

Anyway, Tonto launches into the story of the Lone Ranger for the kid in the museum. So the whole movie is in flashback.

Tonto speak summary: Tonto in museum. Tonto old. Tonto silly and backward. You listen to story now.

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